Cycling Legalese – Is my brakeless bike legal?
Welcome to Cycling Legalese, a new online cycling law column from everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides. He is the creator of popular law blog, The Chicago Bicycle Advocate and is a Certified Bicycle Instructor by the League of American Bicyclists. His Chicago law practice is dedicated to representing cyclists injured by the negligence of drivers, government officials and equipment manufacturers. In the first column we cover a common topic amongst street track riders and bike advocates alike — Are “brakeless” fixed gear bicycles legal to ride on the street?
Submit your own questions in the form at the end of the column.
Q: I’ve got “N O B R A K E S” tattooed on my knuckles ‘cause that’s how I ride. Is my bike legal?
Brendan Kevenides, P.C.: Probably. You are likely in compliance with the law in most states, even if your digit adornment violates good taste. (I’m sure that tattoo seemed like a good idea back in ’07.) Most U.S. jurisdictions do not prescribe a particular braking system. They simply require you to have some system on your bike that allows you to, well, …stop.
Chicago’s ordinance is fairly typical. It states: Every bicycle shall be equipped with a brake that will enable the operator to make the braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement.
Florida law adds a bit more specificity: Every bicycle must be equipped with a brake or brakes that allow the rider to stop within 25 feet from a speed of 10 mph on dry, level, clean pavement.
Neither law states that the required “brake” must consist of a lever, cable and caliper. In places where the law is like Chicago’s a fixed gear bicycle without a traditional handlebar mounted brake will be in compliance with the law. As fixed gear riders know, the bicycle’s drive train, consisting of the fixed rear cog, chain, cranks, and pedals, acts as a braking system; one that works better than the uninitiated may think. It is quite possible, and in fact common, to abruptly stop pedaling locking up the rear wheel causing the bike to skid to a complete stop. It has been argued that chains can break and knee cartilage can tear, but any braking system can fail. As designed, the drive train of a fixed gear bike may enable a rider to bring the bike to a complete and controlled stop. I say may because the bike’s gear ratio must be considered. Some gear ratios will make it nearly impossible to bring the bike to a quick stop. For example, a front chainring with 53 teeth and a rear cog with 13 teeth is going to be almost impossible to bring to a skid stop on pavement. On the other hand, riding with a gear ratio of say 46/18 will make it much easier to accelerate and stop. And let’s be clear, if you cannot successfully bring your fixed gear bike to a skid stop then, unless you have an additional braking system on the bike, you are not in compliance with a statute like the one in Florida or an ordinance like Chicago’s. But riding a fixed gear bike does not necessarily make a cyclist a reckless scofflaw.
At least one U.S. jurisdiction rewrote its vehicular law to accommodate fixed gear bicycle riders who choose not to use a brake separate from that provided by the drive train. Amended in July, 2006 Washington D.C.’s vehicle code states: Each bicycle shall be equipped with a brake which enables the operator to cause the braked wheels to skid on dry, level, clean pavement; provided, that a fixed gear bicycle is not required to have a separate brake, but an operator of a fixed gear bicycle shall be able to stop the bicycle using the pedals.
The portion of D.C.’s law which precedes the semi-colon, reflects existing law in many jurisdictions in the U.S. As I’ve explained, this language alone sufficiently accommodates fixed gear riders. Even the added clarification to the D.C. law acknowledges this. The code states that fixed gear riders need not have a “separate brake,” evidencing the authors’ recognition that fixed gear bikes already have one brake in the form of the fixed gear drive train itself. However, the added language is undoubtedly a helpful clarification for law enforcement officers and judges who may be unfamiliar with how fixed gear riders may bring their bikes to a halt.
So if you are riding fixed, you do in fact have a brake and that knuckle tattoo is both silly looking and inaccurate. But, a practical warning: In a personal injury case in which a bicyclist is injured while riding without a “brake,” the legality of the bike will be beside the point. A jury listening to a case arising out of injuries suffered to a fixed gear rider who did not have what most people recognize as a brake at the time of the crash may be unsympathetic to his or her case. The jury may feel that the bicyclist is substantially at fault for the injuries due to not riding with a traditional brake and will refuse to compensate him or her for injuries sustained. In any event, it is smart to have a front brake in case of an emergency. Having it will also help allay any concerns a jury may have, should a collision occur, about whether the bicyclist is himself or herself at fault for causing the sustained injuries.
Nothing contained in this column should be construed as legal advice. The information contained herein may or may not match your individual situation. Also, laws differ from place to place and tend to change over time. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information presented herein without seeking the advice of an attorney in the relevant jurisdiction. This column is meant to promote awareness of a general legal issue. As such, it is meant as entertainment. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.
Cycling Legalese Question Submission Form: